Last week, Ajoka packed the hall at Alhamra with moving performances of their play, Dukh Darya.
Established in 1984 by Madeeha Gauhar, who directs the play under review, Ajoka has been an organisation that has constantly struggled for a secular and humane society, using theatre as their medium. Over the last 30 years or so, they have become the mainstay for theatre coming out from Pakistan. Their latest production is no different, as it takes a complex issue that plagues the psyche in our part of the world — shame, or honour.
Incidentally, Dukh Darya isn’t Ajoka’s fresh script, and it has been performed a couple of times before also. The new cast of characters had real big shoes to fill, as previous renditions have included such greats as the late Uzra Butt. To their credit, the actors acquit themselves very well.
Dukh Darya combs together the real with the imagined. The playwright Shahid Nadeem ties in the tragic but true story of Shehnaz Kausar with those of the mythologised Sita (of the Ramayana) and the fictionalised Meera Mai. The play uses these three mothers separated by time and place and their stories of separation from what is most precious to them, their children. Though the names of the women change, their stories remain the same. By showing this continuity, the play seems to suggest that suffering and sorrow are not the story of any single woman, but are common to all.
By hearkening back to history and mythology the play endeavours to find the source of sorrow, which plagues the stories of these three women.
Central to the story is the real life tragedy of Shehnaz Kausar, a Kashmiri woman caught on the wrong side of the Kashmiri border. It is said that her tragic tale prompted the writing of the play.
When Shehnaz Kausar is ridiculed and tormented by all around her for being infertile, she comes to her wits’ end and jumps into the river that divides Kashmir between Pakistan and India. When she washes ashore on the other side, she is arrested for having crossed the Line of Control.
In custody she is raped, the horrifying proof of which is her daughter, who is brought up in Jammu Jail. The daughter represents two starkly different realities to the mother and the society — a distinction that is a mark of the complex nuance within the writing.
To Kausar, her daughter is the proof of her innocence, the proof that she is not infertile. To society, she is a mark of shame. Kausar knows the taunts and ridicules she ran away from will be waiting for her once more at home, only now in a new form.
When she is finally released, this tale of tragedy laced with irony turns to absurdity. As per the laws governing the two countries, the mother can be repatriated to Pakistan but the daughter who has an Indian father and was born on Indian soil cannot. The river of sorrow therefore continues to flow unceasingly.
The play reminds one of Manto’s story, ‘Tetwal Ka Kutta,’ which follows the life of a dog suspected to be a spy by both India and Pakistan, and is therefore condemned to run till his death from pillar to post between the two countries. That Shehnaz Kausar and her daughter go through such an ordeal is what paints the story a tragedy. And, the fact that the truth turns out to be stranger here than it does in Manto’s fiction, makes even more morose.